Mike Oliver played football for a good portion of his life – youth football, then high school, where his Downers Grove South team was state runner-up to an East St. Louis team that featured future NFL standout Brian Cox. He then played college football at College of DuPage and at what was then known as the College of St. Francis in Joliet. After his playing days ended, he coached his son Michael in youth football in Naperville, Illinois. Oliver first began coaching his son in what was the only league in the area — the Naperville Youth Football League (NYFL)– but eventually founded what now is the dominant youth league in Naperville, the Naperville Patriots of the American Youth Football league (AYF) in 2004, where he continued to coach his son. Michael continued to play football through high school at Neuqua Valley and in college at Benedictine University in Lisle.
Now, years after his coaching career and his son’s playing career, Mike Oliver, armed with the knowledge about the effects of repetitive hitting and concussions in football, said had he known years ago what he knows now, he would not have allowed his son to play youth football. Oliver believes that youth football is dangerous and that kids should not be allowed to play until they are legal adults. To be clear, Oliver is not rooting for the demise of the NFL or the NCAA’s football programs. He believes college and professional football should be allowed because the players are adults and can make a conscious decision for themselves. He is not bitter, but believes because of the CTE issues that have emerged, there is no place for youths in football.
CTE, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, is a progressive degenerative disease found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as sub-concussive hits to the head that do not cause immediate symptoms. The symptoms of CTE include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, anxiety, suicidal tendencies, Parkinsonism, and, eventually, progressive dementia. These symptoms often begin years or even decades after the last brain trauma or end of active athletic involvement. Over the last decade, many believe CTE is responsible for the suicides of several former NFL players.
In 2013, the NFL agreed to a $765 million settlement to 4,500 former professional players who were suing the league in a class-action lawsuit. Since then, the settlement was raised to $1 billion but there is ongoing court proceedings because of appeals from a small group of players who say the settlement doesn’t compensate those who developed CTE during their lifetimes. Currently, CTE can only be diagnosed after death, so it’s impossible to compensate players who are still alive.
The Chicago Ambassador first became aware of Oliver’s story about a year ago, but he was not ready to speak out at the time. This week, we asked Oliver if he was ready and he granted The Chicago Ambassador his first on the record interview.
Interviewed by Bob Chiarito for The Chicago Ambassador.
CA) You coached your son Michael in the NYFL in Naperville previous to the Naperville Patriots. Why did you start the Patriots?
OLIVER) There were some issues with the way the NYFL was running its traveling program with Pop Warner. They weren’t supposed to have both an in-house program and a travel program. It was supposed to be one thing or the other. So, there were issues with that. But in all fairness, it was the only program in Naperville at the time and they had around 2,500 kids in the program. It would have been very difficult to make all the teams in the league travel teams. Not to mention, not everybody wanted to travel. So, a few of us broke away and started a team called the Titans. I coached one of the teams for a year but that program wasn’t run very well. The following year, I was contacted by some guys who left Pop Warner and formed The AYF (American Youth Football League). They contacted me and asked if I’d like to start a program in Naperville. I think the first year, 2004, I had maybe 50 kids on three teams. That was the start of the Patriots.
The idea was to do things the right way. It wasn’t about about having the fanciest uniforms or the best players. It’s youth football, it should be a family event where the kids come first and [the focus is] not win at all costs. Because we did things the right way, we had a lot of success. We wound up becoming one of the top youth programs in the nation. [Since 2004, the Naperville Patriots have won 8 national titles.]
CA) You told me that if you could do it all over again, knowing what you know now, you would not have let your son play youth football and maybe would not have played yourself, correct?
OLIVER) Yes, that’s true. In the past I was hesitant to say this publicly, because I thought maybe people would call me a hypocrite. I started a football program. I played, my son played… I liken it to smoking in the 1940s and 1950s. Back then they knew it wasn’t good for you but thought it just made your breath stink and your teeth yellow. Fast forward and now they know you’ll get lung cancer and die, to the point where there are warnings on packs of cigarettes. I think football is in a similar situation right now. If you look at all the time between the 1950s and now the 2000s where they really started coming down on it, there is a lot of stuff that has gone on. There has been a lot of misinformation, denial and damage control. Because everybody knows it’s big business, there’s a lot of money involved.
CA) And then former football players in their 50s started killing themselves…
OLIVER) Yeah. There was a certain bravado when I played. You would hear things like ‘You got your bell rung’ when you got hit really hard. Or, ‘I got hit so hard my mouthpiece was full of snot.’ Someone had to help me into the locker room at half-time. You couldn’t see straight, but you didn’t want the coach to take you out. That’s what it was like back then. You’d have some bruises and scars, like the bad breath and yellow teeth of smoking in the 1950s. But now, they know you are doing damage, permanent damage, and it’s cumulative and you can have problems down the road.
CA) Many focus on concussions, but there are a lot of doctors who say it’s the repetitive hitting and not just concussions that cause damage.
OLIVER) Right. And that’s the thing. It’s cumulative and they know now that it’s not good. So, my position is — like when they know how bad smoking and second hand smoke is –they don’t have smoking areas at high schools anymore. When I was at Downers Grove South there was a smoking area and it was looked at as a to each his own kind of thing. Not anymore. You need to be an adult and make a conscious decision to smoke. So as an adult, you buy a pack of cigarettes that says ‘this causes cancer,’ but you’ve made that decision as an adult. I think it’s the same thing in football. I don’t think that youth leagues and youth football are a good idea. I know it may be tough for colleges to recruit, but they’ll find a way. I don’t even think high school football is that good of an idea. Now college and pros, at that point you’re over 18 and if someone wants to put a contract in front of you that says, ‘If you come play football for us, we’ll give you a $200,000 education for free,’ it’s a business decision and you’re an adult. I do think on those contracts it should say ‘Playing football is hazardous to your health,’ just like the warnings on the packs of cigarettes. At that point you can look at it and say ‘I know this is really bad for me, it could wind up killing me. It’s detrimental to my health. However, I’m making this decision as an adult.’ And you shouldn’t be able to sue, just like people can’t sue the cigarette companies anymore. It’s out and you know it’s bad.
I feel even more strongly about having warnings on pro football contracts. Watching pro football is like watching gladiators in ancient Rome. No problem, but they should know and it should be on their contracts that football is hazardous to your health. You are willingly and knowingly subjecting yourself to something that’s very bad for you and you’re signing off on it.
CA) As for the parents of the kids currently in youth football, do you you think they are in denial?
OLIVER) I do. They are in denial. It’s no good for you. What I would tell you is that I don’t believe football is one of those sports that you have to start playing at 6 years old to make it as a professional, and there’s proof of that. Look at Kyle Long. Look at Jared Payton. It’s a fact. Those guys didn’t start playing until later on in their life and they were very, very good. Now there are other sports where it wouldn’t work that way. In hockey, you have to develop those skills very early on. Whether it’s full contact hockey, that’s another story. Basketball, you also have to start young. You can’t just pick up a basketball at a Division One school, no matter how gifted you are, and play basketball unless you’re 7′ or 7’5″. Baseball too. If you want to play at a high level, you have to start pretty early. Football is not like that.
CA) You said that your son Michael suffers from some of the effects of football even now, a few years after his college career ended, right?
OLIVER) Yeah. He’s told me at times he gets a little foggy. All in all, he hasn’t had many repercussions, but only time will tell. He’s had concussions and I think anyone who has played that game is lying to you if they say they never had a concussion. That’s why I think it’s so funny, because these parents really are in denial. If your kid is a decent player and is mixing it up, he’s going to get his bell rung. That’s the way it is. I don’t care if you teach him to play this way or that way, it’s the way it is. The other thing is, at the youth level, there’s not a lot of regulation. Sure, they can only practice two hours a day, five times a week or whatever it is, and once the school year starts maybe it’s three times a week. But that’s to make sure kids have time to do their school work. You go to some of these practices and you see how they are run, some of the coaches have the kids hitting all the time. When I ran the Patriots and people would see my practices, people would scratch their heads and ask why we don’t hit. I’d tell them that it’s not necessary. It’s not necessary to hit all the time and it’s actually counter-productive. We’d work a lot of fundamentals.
CA) Was it because of what you knew?
OLIVER) I knew at the time that it wasn’t productive. They didn’t have the studies out back then, I just knew it wasn’t good. I think anyone that has played – the more you’ve played the more you know how long it takes to recover from hitting. My concern is that there are a lot of guys coaching who are volunteers. If you’re lucky they played some high school ball. And that’s when you get some really goofy stuff going on — guys having their teams do Oklahoma drills for an hour, having the kids just run into each other. It’s no good. And now we know that, it’s documented.
CA) Do you experience any effects from your playing days?
OLIVER) For me, I’d say it’s cumulative. I’m 50 so I can definitely feel it. That’s the thing, now that it’s documented that you’re doing damage to your brain… I don’t know how much damage I’ve done, but as for the other stuff like getting out of bed in the morning, I’d probably feel a lot better if I hadn’t played. I can’t even imagine how guys that played as much as I played and then went on to play another 10 years in the NFL must feel. You can feel a shoulder, you can feel an ankle, but what they are finding out now is that you can’t necessarily feel anything with your brain until something terrible happens.
CA) Have you followed all the stories about CTE since it came out?
OLIVER) I’ve followed it. Once it came out and they assigned it a medical condition, it’s now documented. You’re basically causing brain damage. It’s your brain. We are not talking about a crooked finger, or a scar that somebody thinks is cool. You’re talking about your brain. There’s nothing cool about brain damage when you’re 40 or 50 years old. There’s nothing cool about the effects that are so bad that people are killing themselves — successful people. Look at Dave Duerson. You’re talking about a guy who graduated from Notre Dame and was a good businessman. When you start looking at that, you know there’s something up. I saw it years ago with boxing.
CA) I wish Howard Cosell was around because it would be interesting to see what his position would be. He quit announcing boxing bouts out of disgust for the brutality. I often wonder how he’d feel about football knowing what we know now.
OLIVER) I think he’d be talking about it. The thing is, there was a time when there was denial about boxing as well. They’d say, ‘Oh no, it’s a hereditary thing, it’s a genetic thing, he has Parkinson’s.’ Now they say if you are genetically predisposed to something and you’re getting smacked in the head that it’s going to be a lot worse.
CA) The NFL would point to changes and improvements it has made, like changing the kick off and improving player helmets.
OLIVER) It’s nonsense. It’s nonsense. Here’s the deal. The NFL is a $10 billion dollar a year machine. I always say, just follow the money and you’ll get all the answers you need. Yes, they are going to make cosmetic adjustments to make it seem like they care. You can only change the game so much. It’s a brutal contact sport. Like I said before – you have grown men that are making conscious decisions and they are like gladiators. No one would watch the gladiators fight in Rome if you gave them foam swords. So you can throw flags when guys hit defenseless receivers, that’s fine. But come on, think about all the other stuff that goes on. As for the kickoffs, if they really cared they’d make the teams start at the 20-yard-line. But if you change the game too much, you’re going to ruin that money machine. Not to mention , how many $10 billion dollar companies are out there that are projecting that they will grow to almost three times their size within the next ten years? I don’t know too many.
Keep in mind that they are a $10 billion a year company but the government gets almost half of that in taxes, so the NFL is a very good customer.
CA) What do you think of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?
OLIVER) I think he’s an obvious puppet for the owners. He’s paid by the NFL, which is owned by the individual owners. It is what it is. I think he’s doing the best he can do. I think the main part of his job when issues like this or domestic violence issues with players come up is damage control. What he’ll really be graded on by the owners is how he grows the league.
CA) Do you think the NFL will one day be a side-show type of sport like UFC fighting?
OLIVER) No way. There’s too much money at stake. They’ll just find a way to appease people with cosmetic changes. At the end of the day though, the players are grown men making a conscious choice. That’s all I’m saying. Football should be an informed, conscious decision made by an adult. Not by a 7-year-old kid trying to make his dad happy and getting thrown out there to run into things. It doesn’t make sense. People know how bad cigarettes are now, would you tell your kid to go smoke? That it will make you look cool? ‘Here’s a pack of cigarettes, you’ll be the coolest kid on the playground.’ Who would do that? We laugh, but at the same time that’s exactly what people are doing with youth football. “You’re going to be very popular, you’re going to be a star, it’s going to be so fun.’ For what? It’s bad for you.
The small conflict that I have is that I owe a lot of my success and good relationships to my involvement in the sport, and I think my son would say the same thing. Good things came out of it. But it’s like anything else in life, you have to weigh things.
CA) Perhaps you could have gotten the same out of playing baseball?
OLIVER) It’s tough to say, but I will tell you that I’ve played other sports, and my son was a three-sport athlete. I think anybody who’s played football would tell you that it’s unlike any other sport in terms of the camaraderie, the character building that it does and the positive influence it has on you. It really does and I owe a lot of my success at different points in my life to that game. I can tell you right now, that I can name every coach that I ever had in football, from youth football, through high school and college. I can’t name every teacher I had and I can’t name every baseball coach I had. That’s what I’m saying, it’s different and there are a lot of positives to the game. But when you weigh it against brain damage, you just have to find other ways to develop those traits.
The Chicago Ambassador reached out the the Naperville Patriots and to American Youth Football for comment on this interview.
Doug DiFusco, a current coach with the Patriots, said that the team and league has made changes and believes youth football is not any more dangerous than other youth sports.
“We teach our kids to tackle keeping their heads out of contact. The big difference today is that parents are spending the money to protect their kids more. The technology of the helmets these days is tremendous,” noting that players are responsible for purchasing their own helmets from a list of approved vendors. DiFusco added that the Patriots have not had any decrease in enrollment since CTE issues have been in the news and said, “There are far more concussions in kids riding bikes and skateboarding. Playing soccer is by far the worst.”
Adam Laufer, general counsel for American Youth Football, responded to questions about Oliver’s contentions in an email, saying “We cannot speak or comment on someone’s personal beliefs or experiences.”